Muhammad Ali is having his 65th birthday, and I truly hope it is a happy birthay. The man is former world champion heavyweight boxing, the first time in 1960, the last time in 1978, and several times in between. But the man threw his heavy weight against the injustices of his day – racism and war. Those injustices are still around – and Ali’s attitude is to be celebrated, admired and, where possible, actively followed.
Celebratory articles in the mainstream media hardly mention the thouroughly subversive side of Mohammad Ali’s story. CNN writes 29 sentences in “‘The Greatest’ celebrates his 65th“; just five of them are about the political stand he took, especially the Vietnam war. AlJazeera manages to write two paragraphs on his confrontation with racist bigotry and his membership of the Nation of Islam, and one paragraph on his refusal to go and fight in Vietnam for the USA – in an 18-parapraph piece. Fortunately, the three paragraphs are rather big ones:-)
Yet it was his courageous defiance of war and racial oppression thet scandalized the Eshtablishmant. After het refused to be drafted in the US military, he was stripped of his gold medal and convicted (a conviction that was overturned in the early Seventies).
A beautiful article by David Zirin tells the story, of how boxing became an escape for black men like Ali. He shows how injustice, and the fight against against injustice, permeating the whole of society, does not leave the sports arena untouched. For me – not a sports lover at all – it broadened my view.
I never have been much into sports myself. Physical excercise at high school was a torment. Being small, clumsy in mu movements and awkward among people, I seemed to be an obvious target for humiliation and a moderate dosis of bullying. I still bear the mental scars. Physical excercise was a form of torture, with schoolmates in the role of torturers – a role imposed upon the by the whole context, a role played with various amounts of enthousiasm. Feeling physical attraction to other boys without being too conscious about it only added to the terror.
Later on, I began to see sports for what it is: a combination of war and competition, a pocket-sized edition of what makes capitalist society so sick and disgusting. But I also learned that the people involved – whether fans or the sportsmen and sportswomen themselves – sometimes took a stand against the wrongs of the society of which sports was such a symbolic expression.
And boxing? I don’t enjoy the spectacle of men beating the hell out of each other, not when they do it out of hatred, and not when they do it for money either. I much prefer them to touch each other sensually, lovingly. However, as Zirin shows, boxing was for poor Black men an escape – and throuhg a boxing match, some of them confronted racist society itself. Zirin mentions a match between Jack Johnson, a black man, and Jim Jeffries who announced: “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better that a Negro.” The crowd chanted “Kill the Negro”. Johnson won, crowds of white racists started riots in several cities. The year was 1910.
What goes for boxing applies to sports moge generally. Sports was and is not without its contradiction, not without ist spaces for defiance an resistance. The life of Muhammad Ali offers example after example, even though he ended up shaking hands with president Bush and helping him sell his war policy. The Zirin article deserves to be read and digested. It is called “Revolt of the black athlete – The hidden history of Muhammad Ali“ and can be found in International Socialist Review Issue 33, january-Februari 2004. Zirin wrote another valuable piece on Mohammad Ali: “The Champ Meets the Chump: Bush and Ali”, on Znet, November 20 2005, after president Bush handed Ali a medal, a very sad spectacle. Here he quotes Ali’s stand against the Vietnam War and adds wrily: “If Ali said things like that about our current war, it would have earned him not a medal, but a one-way trip to Gitmo.”
More on Muhammed Ali, especially his confrontation with the US authorities about his refusal to go to war against the Vietnamesecan be found on a webpage “Mohammad Ali“, part of a website called “African American involvement in the Vietnam War”. And about a famous quote , widely, but without evidence atrributed to Muhammad Ali: “No Vietnamese Ever Called Me a Nigger“, on the weblog “Dean Rules”.
The last words go to Muhammad Ali himself , quoted from Zini’s article. The year was 1967, the place was Louisville, where he was to show support in a campaign for better housing in Louisville. Martin Luther King was also there.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people while so-called negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over (… ) So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”